Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Slow profs and the crapification of the university

Karthik sent me this link to a piece on the slowing down the pace of university life; the academic analogue of the slow food movement. The piece makes the case that the basic function of the university is being sacrificed to a progressive corporatization of university life where more papers in more journals, more talks at more conferences, more grants from more sources sets the tone of current academic life. This leads, it is argued, to a place where there is little room to think because everyone is rushing around trying to meet the ever higher "standards" of success. Here's a quote from the slow prof whose book is being reviewed:

"The corporate university's language of new findings, technology transfer, knowledge economy, grant generation, frontier research, efficiency, and accountability dominates how academic scholarship is now framed both within the institution and outside it."

I have more than a little sympathy for this view of things. Moreover, as Karthik noted in his email to me, this is not just the fault of faceless bureaucrats out there running the place. Much of the professoriate has internalized this conception, taking bigger CVs and more grant money to be important marks of success. Some of this is in response to pressures from above regarding hiring, promotion and tenure. However, some of it reflects an acceptance of these standards.

In my experience, what has become much harder to find than it used to be is time to think. Thinking by its nature involves lost time. It is not immediately productive. It is desultory, not clearly aimed in a particular direction. It seems self-indulgent. Despite this, IMO, it is critical to enlarge the imagination and it is necessary for producing the best work. And we have less and less of this.

And this not only affects the profs. When I was a grad student, I had lots of time to waste. I find that students today have much less time than I did to just sit around and waste time thinking, talking, exchanging inane possibilities, weeding these out, joking, intellectually playing etc. There is less unorganized intellectual life in departments than there used to be. It's a little like what one finds with parents and play dates. It used to be that kids just got together and played. Now, they also play, but the activities are organized, supervised, scheduled  etc. So we have plenty of lab meetings, mentoring sessions, talks, colloquia, conferences, but relatively little time for just chat. There is a perception that just sitting around and talking is wasted time, impeding productive research and serious inquiry. I agree. It is not always serious, which is why it is so important.

There is one other reason for the changed academic atmosphere: counting lines on a CV is easy. And it is also "fair" in that it removes judgment. Absent mechanical procedures like counting CV lines, we can only evaluate one another's work using judgment. And so long as not everyone who wants one gets an academic job, we will have to evaluate each other and makes choices. Judgment is messy. Life is easier if all we need to do is count. The slow prof notes that counting comes with its own costs, and serious thinking might be one of them.

Is there anything we can do? Not sure. It's easy to say slow down and take time to think. However, given the realities, this is not a luxury the untenured can afford. Nor, given the realities, is it something that the unemployed can afford. Moreover, it seems to be something that not even the comfortably tenured can enjoy.

Last point: when I first entered academic life many depts had individuals considered very valuable but who did not publish much. They talked to everyone, spurred debates, stirred the intellectual pots, read a lot, kibitzed and more. Moreover, and this is important, they were very highly valued academic citizens. Such people are today unhirable and certainly untenurable. Too bad.


  1. Then the best thing that we can do is to take those qualities that we value, and figure out how to build them into our reward structures (both official and unofficial).

  2. I'm currently a foreign grad student in Japan and I really appreciate that before one is actually obliged to write and submit his thesis and take part in different sorts of organized activities, one has more than one year to officially "waste" it "on thinking, talking, exchanging inane possibilities, weeding these out, joking, intellectually playing etc." But it seems that not so many people around the world have this golden opportunity.